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Geminid
A streaking Geminid meteor makes an impression in an all-sky photo captured in 2011. (Credit: NASA)

The most reliable meteor shower of the year reaches its peak tonight – but to catch the Geminids, you’ll have to find a patch of clear, dark sky.

That’s difficult to do in the Seattle area. There’s a glimmer of hope, however: The weather outlook improves as Sunday night turns into Monday morning, and it gets a lot better by Monday night. With any luck, there’ll still be some Geminids to see. So let’s assume you do find clear skies sometime in the next couple of days.

The Geminids appear every year from Dec. 4 to 17. They peak on Dec. 13-14, when Earth passes right through the trail of cosmic grit and pebbles left behind by an asteroid or burned-out comet called 3200 Phaeton. When those bits of debris pass through the upper atmosphere, they leave bright meteoric trails behind.

This year is a good one because the crescent moon makes an early exit, leaving a nice glare-less sky to look up into. Under peak conditions, you could see as many as 100 meteors per hour, including showy fireballs.

To see that kind of show, you’d have to get far away from city lights and keep watch between midnight and dawn. We published a list of five top meteor-watching locations for Seattleites when the Perseids reached their peak in August – but before you hit the road, check the Clear Sky Chart. This database crunches the numbers from weather forecasts to estimate how clear and dark the sky conditions will be for a given vantage point.

For what it’s worth, some of tonight’s more promising locations are around Olympia, Poulsbo and Yakima.

Geminid meteors appear to diverge from a point in the constellation Gemini, as shown here. Don't expect to see several meteors at once: This chart is meant only to show the meteors diverging from the radiant point. (Credit: Gregg Dinderman / Sky & Telescope)
Geminid meteors appear to diverge from a point in the constellation Gemini, as shown here. Don’t expect to see several meteors at once: This chart is meant only to show the meteors diverging from the radiant point. (Credit: Gregg Dinderman / Sky & Telescope)

The shooting stars seem to emanate from a spot in the constellation Gemini, but they can appear anywhere in the night sky. So the ideal spot for viewing would provide as wide a view of the sky as possible. You’ll want to make yourself comfortable in a lounge chair or on a blanket, and bundle up against the chill. It doesn’t hurt to bring along a thermos bottle filled up with your favorite hot beverage. (Holiday spiced cider, anyone?)

If it’s clear, you can watch the International Space Station pass through the sky after sunset, or see Venus, Mars and Jupiter together in the east before dawn. Check EarthSky.org for details.

Even if the clouds extend from horizon to horizon, you can experience the Geminids vicariously online: The Slooh virtual observatory is planning a streaming-video show starting at 5 p.m. PT tonight, with astronomers Will Gater and Bob Berman as hosts. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center will present a live tweet chat from 8 p.m. to midnight PT.

Pictures are already being shared on NASA’s Geminid Flickr gallery, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Geminid Facebook page and SpaceWeather.com’s meteor gallery. And if by some chance you snap a photo through a clear patch of sky, feel free to share it with us via GeekWire’s Facebook page.

Thanks to Sky & Telescope for providing sky charts for the Geminids.

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